It’s raining apricots in the garden.
Flowering apricots, that is. No fruit, but a shower of fragile petals, washed with pink, blooming with abandon while January winds blow frigid air through the boughs.
The eating apricots are in the kitchen, simmering with succulent lamb shanks, and cipolline onions, in a sweetly spicy sauce fragrant with cinnamon, ginger and a dash of smoky-hot Spanish paprika.
This braise began, as it usually does, with the tender little lamb shanks that I get from Bob Pope, whenever he hasn’t already promised them to customers like Zely & Ritz or Foursquare. Bob raises South African Dorper lambs on a Cedar Grove farm that has been in his family since 1852. The meat is delicate and delicious, tasting of the sweet grass and other good things on which his lambs nibble.
I always want Bob’s lamb to be the star of show, but lately I’ve been intrigued with Moroccan meat and fruit tagines. In Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert writes, “No matter what the month, there is a tree somewhere in Morocco bearing fruit for the tagine pot. The combinations may seem unlikely at times, but I guarantee you will find them delicious: lamb with quinces, apples, pears, raisins, prunes or dates, with or without honey, with or without a complexity of spices.” Fresh apricots, she points out, are a summer treat.
Some of Wolfert’s lamb and fruit recipes seem quite sweet, especially those to which she adds honey or sugar. I decided throttle back, relying instead on plump dried Turkish apricots and small cipollline onions for sweetness. But for contrast, I added spices: a generous pinch of saffron, ground cumin and coriander, and a stick of cinnamon, as much for its alchemical effect–pulling disparate flavors together, adding what my friend Susana calls “round base notes”—as its taste.
Even so, I guessed that the braise might need more balance, so I decided to add a knob of fresh ginger, crushed but left whole, figuring that its pungency would temper the sweetness of the fruit. Only later, leafing through Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, did I stumble upon a recipe for Mishmishiya, a tagine with, you guessed it, lamb, apricots and fresh ginger. (Mishmish is the Arabic word for apricot.) So much for originality. Many tagine recipes include powdered ginger in the spice mix, but fresh ginger is unusual. Roden explains its presence by saying that “the recipe comes from Paris.”
I like to brown the lamb before braising it, so I hauled out my favorite Le Creuset which I use for all braises and stews. If you want to make the dish in an earthenware tagine, brown the shanks in a skillet first, followed by the onions, garlic and spices. Spread the onion mixture in the bottom of the tagine, put the lamb shanks on top and add enough water to come about halfway up the side of dish. You will have to keep the flame low, so it will probably take longer for the meat to reach the “falling-off-the-bone” stage. Remember to turn the shanks once or twice.
Your reward, however you do it, will be a sumptuous dish for the cold, dark days, one offers a glimmer of the summer ahead. Apricots in January. Indeed.
Lamb Shanks Braised with Turkish Apricots, Cipolline Onions and Fresh Ginger
Serves 3 to 4 people with rice or bread
2-3/4 to 3 pounds lamb shanks (one large or two small shanks per person)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
4-inch stick of cinnamon, broken in half
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and crushed, left whole
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon smoky hot Spanish paprika
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
Generous pinch of saffron threads
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 to 4 cups water
¾ cup dried Turkish apricots
8 cipolline onions, peeled, but left whole
¼ cup blanched almonds, sautéed in a little olive oil till brown
Parsley, for garnish (optional)
1. Rinse the lamb shanks and pat them dry. Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a heavy pot and heat over a medium flame. Saute the lamb shanks until they are lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. (Don’t worry if you can’t brown the whole shank. Just do your best.) Remove from the pot and set aside.
2. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and lower the heat to medium low. Stir in the onions, cinnamon stick and crushed gingerroot, and sauté gently until the onions have begun to wilt and the spices have released their aroma. Add the garlic, dry spices and salt and pepper, and continue to sauté for about 30 seconds.
3. Return the lamb to the pot and stir the spice and onion mixture to coat the meat. Add 3 to four cups of water to the pot, enough to come up the sides of the lamb shanks but not so much that they are completely submerged. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to low and cover. Simmer gently for about an hour and a half, until the meat is very tender but not quite ready to fall off the bone.
4. Add the apricots and cipolline onions to the pot, cover and continue to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the lamb is fork tender.
5. If the sauce is a little watery, remove the lamb shanks from the pot and keep warm. Continue to simmer until the sauce thickens slightly There should be about 1-1/2 to 2 cups. Return the shanks to the sauce and heat through. They are delicious served over rice, but a crusty baguette will allow you to sop up all the glorious juices.